To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place …  I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.

 – Elliott Erwitt

Some things come easier to us because they blend with our nature. For me, it’s finding the smaller stories in a scene. I tend to notice and pay attention to details. I can easily find a four-leaf clover in a large patch or notice a tiny spider tucked in the folds of a flower. I’m also one of those who balance my checkbook to the penny – for over 44 years. Details resonate with me.

Smaller stories in photography range from slices of the bigger picture to macro and close-ups. Even if your leaning and love is the grand landscapes, the “slicing” comes from your choices of what parts to include in your frame and why. For this blog, the focus will be on the smaller “stories” that are found in the macro and close-up world. Again, I tend to “go small” more often than latch onto the expanded views. As to why the small world is my “Calgon,” I don’t really know. What I do know is that when I notice the details (a curl of a petal, rust textures or patterns on old cars, lines and curves on plants and flowers), I am drawn in. And, when I “dig in,” the rest of the world and time evaporate.

Very early in my photography journey I had an epiphany of sorts in a wildflower field that confirmed my love for the “smalls.” This prompted the purchase of my first macro lens. Before then, I had been using a set of close-up filters (+1, +2 and +4). In the field, with my film camera (and two lenses), I stacked them all and found myself … In the end, however we get there, what we “put in the box” is our own smaller story.

Wild Geranium with 28-300mm at f/5.6 on tripod

Water lilies with 70-180mm micro at f/16 on tripod


Before I share the camera gear I use, you should know that I’ve accumulated much over the course of nearly 25 years. And, most of what I have I still use, though some more than others. Honestly, no one truly needs everything I own to create wonderful “small world” images.

My collection of equipment for macro and close-ups includes a Nikon Z6ii mirrorless body with adapter (allows me to use all my non-Z lenses). I have three macro lenses (90mm, 70-180mm and 200mm), at least six supplemental macro/close-up diopters (Nikon 6T, Canon 500D), extension tubes and a miscellaneous collection of close-up filters. I have a roller bag “plus” full of Lensbabies, optics and close-up filters that will get me close when I want, which is often. I also use my Nikon 28-300mm VR lens and the 500D (magnification approx. 1:3.2) combination to get close. This lens has a short minimum focusing distance (MFD) of 1.6 feet, which helps. Working distance is about 8.5” from front of lens. The 500D and 6T’s increase magnification, reduce working distance and can be used on any lens with the help of step-up rings (brand or type of lens does not matter). The reason for using any supplemental accessory noted above is to increase magnification of your subject in the frame and get you closer. Can you crop? Of course, you can, but I prefer to do as much as I can in the field.

So, what do YOU need to get closer to your smaller subjects? In a perfect world, having a macro lens would be great. However, if you have close-up diopters or extension tubes, you can get closer with any lens (my preference in the alternative is to use a zoom telephoto combination). Wide angle lenses can work and do allow close focusing, but your working distance shrinks, and lighting your subject becomes more challenging.

Mushroom in Forest Scene – 28-300mm at f/22 on tripod

Mushroom Star with 28-300mm & 500D at f/5.6 on tripod

Other Accessories for Macro/Close-up

You really need a sturdy tripod that has independent legs and a way for you to get low to the ground when you need to. Yes, I know, you probably have one and don’t like using it. Here’s the thing, none of us are statues. Not everyone “loves” or uses their tripod. Instead, increasing ISO is one of the common responses. It can work, and I do handhold when the situation is “good” for that or when the tripod acrobatics required is impossible for any given subject and composition. The disadvantage of handholding is that we miss out of the “refinement” opportunities that come with using a tripod. Almost never do we return to the same composition when we’re handholding. Also, using a tripod, along with shutter release cable or self-timer, gives us sharper images (unless our subject moves or is moved by the elements).

Diffusers and Reflectors – These are your friends and lighting assistants for various situations – bright, shaded and mottled light. The diffuser evens and softens the light on your subject. By varying placement, you can control levels of light (closer- more light filters through; further back, less light, more like soft shade, but even). The reflectors (gold or silver) allow you to bounce light back onto your subject or scene (gold/warm, silver/cool-neutral). In the field, I typically use a 22” 5-in-1 diffuser reflector set and a 12” reflector hooked to my belt loop or bag with a carabiner. In the larger pouch, I also add the diopters and either a small flashlight or light (Litra Torch), even if I’m using my macro lens. I find that very often I want to get even closer, and a small light source in addition to reflector is helpful. You can also shine your light through the diffuser for some additional filtration.

Filters – Circular Polarizer & Neutral Density – Almost always (except under really low light), I have a circular polarizer on my lenses. On rare occasions I do remove. (See “Polar-What?” blog for more on that.) Occasionally, but not often, I may use an ND filter if I need to tone the exposure down or accentuate movement of some kind, but rarely. A 3-stop ND filter can come in handy for this. It is usually a “just-in-case” accessory for my macro work, and it’s not standard practice for me to bring for most macro and close-up work.

Fall leaf on metal with 24-105 at f/16 with diffuser on tripod


So, now that the gear talk is behind us, let’s explore a few concepts that have little or nothing to do with our gear. (You’ll get more insight in the image captions.)

Looking and Seeing – There’s a Difference

It may sound funny, but there IS a difference. We cannot find subjects If we don’t open our eyes and begin to “look.” The challenge becomes a matter of slowing down, opening not only our eyes, but our minds. We must put on our “noticers” to begin to “see” our subjects. The awesomeness of anything is not always obvious. I was reminded of that recently at Grandfather Mountain Nature Photography Weekend, where I was presenting and leading several field sessions in MacRae Meadows.

My first impression of the Meadows was, “Oh, no. What can I find here to shoot for my groups?!” My eyes were open, but my mind was not. It was only partly cracked to see all the options. I went back two more times, each visit with a more open mind. On that third visit I was fully present and open and discovered a world of possibilities – from a wonderful bed of ferns, fallen leaves and acorns to what turned out to be a mushroom wonderland. What changed? Not the Meadows … but me. My eyes and mind were finally open to anything. My attitude had softened – going from anxious to relaxed and even excited. Now, I could SEE more than the meadows minus the wildflowers I was hoping for.  So can you.

How? Practice . . . and Focus. Try this: Wherever you are, pick a spot. Have a seat. No camera, just you. Look around and begin to notice what surrounds you on a smaller scale (grass, leaves, flowers, bugs, whatever). Then, look closer at your surroundings. Pay attention to colors, patterns, shapes, lines and textures. Look beyond what the things in front of you are called. That’s just one way to “look and see” before you plop yourself and your gear down to start shooting.

Tiny mushroom family with 28-300mm and 500D at f/16, underexposed at -2.3 EV on tripod. Lit from below with flashlight snoot. The final frame in series of 24 to achieve the desired effect for lighting and depth of field.

Acorn pair